By Pablo Flórez
Colombia is one of the most beautiful and biodiverse countries on the planet. With over 1,941 species of birds, it possesses the highest number of species in the world. For any bird watcher or ecotourist Colombia is very attractive. On a low budget you can observe numerous birds as well as many ecosystems in a short time.
Although bird watching has occurred since the early 20th century, it was only around 1965 that Ornitholidays appeared in England, the first company dedicated to bird watching tourism. Bird tourism had an exponential increase thanks to lower-cost flight and the as availability of identification books and experienced local guides. And importantly, during the last decade digital photography has become highly advanced and affordable.
Ecuador, Costa Rica and Panamá pioneered this activity, followed by Peru, Brazil and Argentina. Today there is a good tourist infrastructure consisting of lodges, feeders, hides, and canopy towers and walkways.
Potential for bird tourism in Colombia
In Colombia bird watching tour began in the early 1990s where pioneers like Paul Coopmans and Steve Hilty brought a few clients. Between 1996 and 1999, Dr. Paul Salaman led the first tours in Colombia with the goal of observing 1,000 bird species in 30 days in order to promote the country as a travel destination.
Unfortunately, between 1998 and 2003 the security situation in Colombia became very difficult, delaying the development of bird tourism. However, between 2003 and 2009, the Belgian Jurgen Beckers travelled extensively and designed tour routes incorporating many interesting species, and helped move the country away from the bad reputation it had due to the internal conflict.
Fundación ProAves was born in 1998, and was legally established in 2001, creating the first private Nature Reserves in the country to protect critical sites of bird biodiversity in Colombia. Between 2002 and 2015, Reserves were established for bird watching, including’s ProAves Reserves El Dorado (in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta), El Pangán (a place with mega-diversity in the Pacific foothills of Nariño), Loro Orejiamarillo, Colibrí del Sol and Arrierito Antioqueño (in the mountains of Antioquia), and El Paujil (located in the most important forest of Magdalena Medio). In total 28 ProAves Reserves encompass more than 60,000 hectares of protected ecosystems, having more than 1,600 species and the majority of endemic and threatened birds. The Foundation did a remarkable job developing bird watching tours within and route to their Reserves and training some of the first guides in Colombia, who now have their own companies.
In 2007 ProAves organized the first fam trip (for familiarization) of bird watchers coming from outside Colombia. Several of the best guides in the tropics and representatives of birding tours companies (such as Nick Athanas, Frank Lambert, Steve Hilty, and Bradley Davis) visited reserves and promoted Colombia as a safe and satisfying birding destination.
The result was a large advance in bird tourism, as the Colombian government itself recognized its potential contribution to sustainable development.
In 2008 ProAves became the first Colombian Foundation to have a stand at the famous annual Bird fair in England. This was a major advance in publicizing Colombia was as a safe ecotourism destination. In that year, the Foundation created the first bird-tourism company, EcoTurs Colombia, to operate tours in Colombia and manage the tourism infrastructure of ProAves Reserves.
In 2010 ProAves published the guide to the birds of Colombia in English (which had not been updated? since 1986). A second edition of the English version appeared in 2014 under the guidance of Miles McMullan and Thomas Donegan.
Without doubt, El Dorado and Las Tángaras (The Tanagers) ProAves Reserves have become benchmark tourism lodges for other Reserves in Colombia.
Ecotourism for the sustainable development in Colombia
Ecotourism is an excellent way to generate employment, protect ecosystems, and publicize the country’s resources. We are happy and proud to actively conserve nature and generate prosperity for Colombia. And we believe that tourism in ProAves Reserves, by Colombians and foreigners, is essential to sustain these young reserves for the birds of Colombia.
Our achievements are: the world famous El Dorado lodge, excellent bilingual field guides, the promotion of Colombia as an international premier birding destination, and the attraction of bird watching companies. This success has led to an “explosion” in bird tourism that now benefits hundreds of companies and thousands of people involved in the tourism industry in Colombia.
Commendably, ProAves has formed a large network of spectacular bird Reserves that are saving great places, which people from around the world can enjoy in relaxation and in awe of nature’s bounty.
Pablo is a founding member of Fundación ProAves. He completed his studies on the Yellow-eared Parrot in Jardín, Antioquia, in 2002. Pablo is a professional bird and nature guide in Colombia and owner of one of the oldest and most respected birding companies in Colombia, Multicolored Birding Tours.